How can Naomi Osaka take the next step on clay and can she win another Grand Slam at Roland-Garros?
Naomi Osaka has won four Grand Slam titles but is yet to reach the final of a clay event. How does the 23-year-old take the next step forward on the surface? Osaka won the Australian Open earlier this year but hasn't played since the Miami Open and is going to make her first clay appearance of the season at the Madrid Open this week.
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The clay. Some love it. Some hate it. Some will never like it. Some grow to like it. Dan Evans once described it as a "pointless exercise", but may have softened his stance after reaching his first Masters semi-final on the surface in Monte Carlo recently.
Where is Naomi Osaka in the clay-loving-liking-hating spectrum at the moment?
Her results on the surface are still lacking. She hasn’t made a final at a clay tournament, she hasn’t made it past the third round at Roland-Garros, and all four of her Grand Slam wins have come on hard courts. Conquering the clay appears to be the next step for the 23-year-old.
Japan's Naomi Osaka plays a backhand return to Belarus' Victoria Azarenka during their women's singles second round match on day five of The Roland Garros 2019 French Open tennis tournament in Paris on May 30, 2019.
Image credit: Getty Images
"I think the only question mark for her now is: can she get comfortable on clay, and can she get comfortable on grass at Wimbledon?" said Eurosport pundit Mats Wilander after seeing Osaka win at the Australian Open in February. “Because then there will be four majors she should be able to win."
Osaka said after Melbourne that she wants to complete her "set of trophies" and win Roland-Garros and Wimbledon, a feat only achieved by 10 other women and eight men. Few doubt that Osaka will win more Grand Slams in her career - and it would not be a surprise to see her add to her collection this year - but right now it would be a surprise to see her do it before the US Open.
Her win-rate on clay currently stands at 60 per cent, compared to 69 per cent on hard courts and 52 per cent on grass. Last year she skipped the re-arranged clay season after winning the US Open and the year before she was beaten in the third round of the French Open after making the quarter-finals in Rome and Madrid beforehand.
For a player who grew up on hard courts in America, adapting to clay clearly takes time. The high bounce and slower courts don’t suit Osaka’s attacking game as much, and even though she is a good mover there are a variety of different skills needed to succeed on clay. It took Serena Williams 11 years after winning her first French Open title in 2002 to add a second, while seven-time Grand Slam champion Venus Williams only once made it past the quarter-finals in Paris. A look at the assorted list of winners over the last decade shows just how challenging it is to succeed at Roland-Garros.
Osaka's approach this week is to "have fun and try to build match play for the French [Open]", but she's also acknowledged that alongside that she is striving for success on clay.
"For me it's exciting to go into the clay-court swing because I haven't won a tournament on clay yet. Even though that does make me a bit excited, it also gives me a bit of stress because I really want to do well here. I think for me I do better when I don't stress myself out and tell myself that I have to win a tournament. But it's really hard to fight that feeling when you really want something."
Familiarity and confidence appear to be two key factors for Osaka.
Her coach Wim Fissette says he has "no doubt" that the world No 2 can win on clay, but thinks overcoming any doubts on the court is vital to Osaka’s chances.
"I remember in the past when, a long time ago, when I was working with Kim [Clijsters] and she didn't play many tournaments on clay. She was playing great tennis but as soon as she would miss a few balls, she would doubt a lot of things. She would doubt her game plan, she would doubt, like, oh, maybe I should have gone bigger on this ball, maybe I should have been more patient on this ball.
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"I think when you don't have a lot of experience of success on those surfaces, that's easy to start doubting. If Naomi plays on hard court and she goes for the forehand winner and she misses, she will say, OK, next time I will make it. But maybe on those [other] surfaces she will think, Oh, maybe I should have hit with a little more margin, maybe I should have done this. So it's easy to start doubting."
Martina Navratilova also thinks experience is key, saying Osaka just “needs the mileage” to succeed on clay and grass. "Game-wise there’s not that much of an adjustment to make," the 18-time Grand Slam winner told Tennis Now.
Osaka has previously described it as a "process" as she tries to adapt to clay. "I feel like I have everything that I need to do well on clay and on grass, but it's just feeling comfortable,” she told the WTA Insider Podcast after her Australian Open win.
Not only have not many hard-court champions been able to win at Roland-Garros, but very few have dominated. If Osaka can do that she will cement her place as a real force in the women’s game.